Monday, May 27, 2013

To Boldly Fart - Why "Star Trek: Into Darkness" Doesn't Work as a Film


When I saw J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" in 2009, I thought it was okay. The plot wasn't perfect, but it was serviceable. The same cannot be said for Star Trek: Into Darkness. The popularity of this movie can only be attributed to what I call "Twilight Syndrome," in which fans of a series believe that including complex story elements and tie-ins to the series lexicon automatically makes a movie good. This is entirely untrue.

First of all, I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that the main villain is Khan; I'm pretty sure every Star Trek fan figured this out from the first trailer in December. If you've seen the movie, though, you'll be able to follow why I think this was a bad idea. First is this:

Star Trek: Into Darkness does not establish Khan as a character.
It's supposed to be a big reveal when Khan reveals his true identity in the middle of the film. This fails to achieve the desired reaction from the audience for two reasons:
  1. Abrams sprinkled too many clues for a fan of the Original Series to be surprised. Quite a lot of us knew that this was Khan going into the film, and no attempts were made to throw us off of the scent to preserve the surprise.
  2. Khan's revelation means nothing to first-time fans of these movies. No attempt is ever made within the film to explain who Khan even is. He mentions his own savagery, but the closest thing we get to a backstory about him comes from Khan himself, and he makes himself out to be a good guy who will do evil things to protect those he loves. That's fine, but Khan adds nothing to that role. We get Old Spock to hint that Khan was quite a pain to take down, but his phrasing is so vague it requires having seen Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan to even know what he's talking about, and in fact doesn't tell us anything about Khan the movie didn't tell on its own. We already know Khan does terrible things, we watched him commit two terrorist attacks in the beginning of the film! We already know Khan's a tough cookie, we watched him mow down dozens upon dozens of Klingon warriors and patrol ships on his own! Don't tell us what we already know!
Khan is not crucial to the story.
As a result of not characterizing him, the question becomes: does this really need to be Khan? Yes and no: you definitely needed the crew of the S.S. Botany Bay for most of this plot to work. The problem is, I don't think Khan himself was needed; Admiral Marcus could have easily woken up any other crewmember and gotten the exact same results. Appreciating Khan's significance already requires knowledge of his prior appearances, yet Khan himself exhibits no personality traits in common with his counterpart in Star Trek 2 that those fans can fall back on. If he had continued to go by the name "Harrison" for the rest of the film, I would have noticed similarities to Khan's storyline for sure, but not to Khan himself.

Admiral Marcus was a more threatening villain.
As much as Khan's devotion to his crew is supposed to mirror and oppose Kirk's own devotion, Khan really doesn't threaten that balance very much. When the Enterprise gets the ever-loving piss kicked out of it, it's done by Marcus and his Star Destroyer. Khan doesn't really fight Kirk until after Marcus is defeated, and when he starts beating the tar out of the Enterprise with the Star Destroyer again the audience has already lost all sense of peril. (Though that's partly because Khan was too dumb to notice that he had beamed armed nukes into the belly of the ship.) Khan actually causes none of the damage leading to Kirk's "sacrifice," and in the end is less threatening as a main villain than Admiral Marcus was as a side villain. In fact despite being the weaker story, just having this film focus on Marcus' story and scrapping Khan would have worked better. Everything Khan does could be accomplished by a rogue Section 31 agent (which is actually mentioned but never used in the story) who disagrees with Marcus' policies. The needed metaphor and comparison for Kirk's self-realization in this film could easily be accomplished by either this character or by Marcus himself; the film as it is already has Carol Marcus, his daughter, as a way for such a plotline to go forward. For all its preaching about devotion to one's crew this film is really about Kirk's and Spock's relationship, and making it more personal in this fashion would actually drive the message home better than Khan's story arc did.

Admiral Marcus' reveal had more impact than Khan's.
Again, you either knew it was Khan already, or you were in the crowd for whom this reveal meant absolutely nothing. Marcus, on the other hand, actually has some mystery building up until we see him show up in his Star Destroyer. You know Marcus is up to something pretty quickly in the second act, but you're not just dead sure what until the Star Destroyer shows up.

Admiral Marcus is the more effective villain.
Despite the fact that Khan is supposed to be the A-Plot here, the fact of the matter is that the audience never feels threatened by Khan. He has his terrorist attacks and his impressive show with the Klingons, but when Khan has the Enterprise at his mercy he stupidly beams aboard armed bombs (which someone like him ought to have anticipated, assuming the computer didn't detect it), ridding us of all tension since we know he's done for. Then, during the chase scene on Earth, we still don't feel threatened because Khan is by himself with no backup plan being chased by a fully-powered and very pissed off Enterprise crew.

Marcus, on the other hand, is an intelligent adversary who is only defeated because he didn't know Scotty was aboard to sabotage the ship. Even then, the Star Destroyer totally outclasses the Enterprise and demonstrates this by out-running it, pulverizing it, and generally having Kirk and his crew at its mercy. At no other time are the main protagonists truly in danger of being killed than when Marcus, not Khan, is blasting chunks off the Enterprise. It is the only point in the movie where the audience wonders, "How the heck are they gonna get out of this one?"

It's not that I don't like how Khan was used, as some of my family members have accused me of thinking. The problem is the execution: Khan is just never a threat. This film could have been saved by just toning down Marcus a bit. All you really have to do is give Khan to Marcus when he asks, have Khan take over the Star Destroyer (which he himself mentions can be operated by one man), and then kick the crap out of the Enterprise so they'll surrender Khan's crew. It still wouldn't be great, but it would be at least as good as the first movie, and you would knock it down to one action scene so that the audience doesn't get tired of seeing the Star Destroyer in action. Since the film makers were going for a Star Trek 2 remake of sorts, it would also fit better with that concept since Khan never got into a direct fist fight with the main characters in that film. You could still have the torpedo gamble that Spock made, but at least this way it could be something McCoy was working on during the battle like he did in Star Trek 6. This doesn't solve the problem of Khan having no personality, but then again neither did Nero; not a great work, but at least it would be serviceable.

If you still haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness and are just reading this for shits and giggles, I would wait until you can go rent it to see it. It's still a fun movie with some funny bits and easter eggs, but paying theater-price for it felt like a rip-off.

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